Barriers to sensor innovation

There have always been plenty of innovative ideas about sensors. But, despite manufacturers wanting to develop them, very few come to fruition. Michael Scott of Optocem.net and Stephen Russell of WRc examine the problems

Overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that there are considerable barriers to the successful commercial exploitation of sensor innovation in the water and wastewater treatment industries. There have always been lots of exciting sensor research ideas, mostly from academia, and this is still the case. There are also manufacturing companies looking for new ideas to develop into products.

Although the users - water companies - are rarely actively looking for new ideas, there are increasing business efficiency and regulatory pressures on them to be more receptive to well presented ideas. So why are so few innovative sensor products developed? Bodies such as the Sensors in the Water Industry Group (Swig), and more recently the Swig-supported Optocem.net, have provided an impartial forum for the presentation and debate on needs and opportunities. But the scale of the information and ideas available cannot be adequately covered with this limited resource. At least a part of the problem is poor communication between the three groups (illustrated in Figure 1 below).

The suppliers, users and academics have hard-working skilled people but they operate in closed cells, which occasionally bump against each other. The troublesome question of who owns the intellectual property rights (IPR) is usually a separate cell, which hinders anything that might result from one of the bumps.

There are a number of reasons why communication might be difficult. The time scales of academia, manufacturers and users vary considerably. Even when a scientific principle has been identified and demonstrated, a number of years might be needed before a robust demonstration might result from a graduate or, more likely, a postgraduate activity. Although there are some large manufacturers developing commercial instruments for this market, the majority are SMEs with time scales of one or two years at most. The users will be responding to commercial pressures, which can be less than a year, and regulatory pressures, which might take decades before they become urgent.

The above timing differences often pose continuity difficulties. Key experts and enthusiasts may move on to other matters and either not be replaced or be replaced by experts with other ideas. Worthwhile projects fail to achieve success because there is no continuity in the vision of the project champion. That is not to say that projects do not change. It is vital that any project taking a new sensor idea to market is continuously alive to changes in market needs, competing ideas and changes in enabling technologies. For example, telephony and radio comms are changing at an astonishing pace with time scales of less than a year. Chip sets are moving at least as quickly, and power sources are not far behind.

Language difficulties also arise in sensor development projects; with each of the potential partners using specialist terms, attitudes and experience within their own culture cell. Consultants are often used for language and culture translation between the potential partners.

Bringing a new sensor idea to market requires a logical train of events to take place (as in the table below). The best approach is that all the partners are involved at all stages of the project. The academic partner has to present robust data to show that a sensor is possible. The manufacturer has to agree that the likely manufacturing and support resources are within the current or intended capabilities. This will involve capital, space and skills considerations. The user has to agree that a specified need exists and some idea of unit number, capital cost and cost of ownership must exist.

The later may well be a challenge - particularly if a completely new sensor is being developed. Many projects fail because the actual end user, the operator, is only brought into the discussion in the final stages of the project, whereas valuable insights can be provided by those who are called upon to stand on a muddy river bank at 3am on a Saturday morning in the pouring rain.

Route to market
  • Research idea
  • Laboratory demonstration
  • Robust data set
  • Demonstration prototype
  • Field trial
  • Robust data set in the matrices of interest
  • Pre-production prototype
  • Field trial with typical operators
  • Robust data set in the matrices of interest
It is well known that the market for aqueous sensors in the W&WT and environmental markets is highly fragmented and of modest size and this poses serious challenges for those who need to recover development and marketing costs.

Over and above the role of the technology translator, facilitation of discussions between the three partners requires skill, tact, determination and a clear idea of the widely understood intended goal. The term "three partners" of course grossly simplifies that actual challenge.

It is likely that each of the partners has subdivisions of thought and may well have active counter lobbying. And the dynamics of each of the partners may well change during the project.

Sensor development has always required multi-disciplinary skills and this is rapidly increasing since chemical measurements to determine water quality will provide the majority of new sensors' needs. Consider the disciplines that need to be considered when evaluating a project for a chemical sensor; even at a high level:
  • Chemistry
  • Biosensors
  • Micro-fluidics
  • Sampling
  • Biofouling
  • Sensor presentation to the process
  • Packaging
  • Consumables
  • Storage/maintenance
  • Calibration/audit trail
  • Data communication
  • Existing/emerging technologies or products
  • Standards and certified reference materials
  • Existing custom and practice
  • Sale and marketing
  • IPR management
Each of the items in the above table can be significantly further expanded, and no doubt some subjects have been omitted. The inputs for the above considerations will come from many sources and different locations each with their own agenda and dynamics.

Communication, collation of ideas and maintaining enduring consensus is an interesting challenge. New technologies, or advances with old technologies, have routinely been over-exposed with unrealistic time scales and efficacies attributed to them. The electronic nose and the biosensor are perhaps two of the more obvious examples.

Users have been cajoled into trials with inevitable disappointments. This has meant that the adventurous individuals among the users have lost face and find that budgets or co-operation from management or colleagues are reduced for future exploration and testing of ideas.

A significant input to solving the barriers problem might be a template for project definition which all partners sign up to and continuously contribute to.

Research idea
  • Business problem/opportunity addressed
  • Notional units required over what period of time
  • Notional capital cost of instrument.
  • Notional cost of ownership of instrument
  • Skills/infrastructure required to support the instrument and the resulting data
  • Project Plan
  • Objective
  • Business plan
  • Time scales/critical path schedule
  • Management team
  • Project champion
  • Management method/procedures
  • Established regular dates for critical project review
  • Formal agreement to continue or close project
Although the vast majority of sensor projects would claim to have always had such a formal approach, close inspection shows that the drive to get support for research is the dominant force, while the industrial partners are often part time and less than fully engaged.

Formalising each contribution might help stimulate informed engagement by each contributor but it does require a very pro-active project/product champion with at least a working understanding of the business and technical needs of the three partners. A potential effect of a continuous upfront understanding, or risk analysis, of the likely commercial outcome is that the project team might well conclude, at one of the critical reviews, that the project is not viable; with consequent angst for those receiving financial support or expecting revenue streams from a new product. However, such rigor may also lead to scarce resources reaching the most valuable projects.

WRc has had a long involvement in developing a non-contact monitor for wastewater polluting load, beginning as an EC project. During the development two different manufacturing partners pulled out due to changes in company policy and concerns over product viability. The experience illustrates how problems arise due to mismatched timescales between technology providers, users and manufacturers.

Problems were accentuated by the meagre resources available, development time dragged on and partners left, diluting the drive of the product champions. The commercial resources and priority given were probably judged correctly against the expected commercial gains and project risks. But the result is a project in limbo, in spite of support from two large water companies, and considerable interest from the Environment Agency.

Some years ago, senior figures in Defra mused out loud whether it would be wise to consider a mandatory measurement of water safety/quality near the customers tap. One UK water company thought that this musing represented a logical train of thought and a serious challenge and decided to take pre-emptive action.

Promising work came from a combined manufacturer/academic thrust but a couple more years passed and it became clear to the regulator that the cost would be far too high and the idea was dropped. Those who had taken pre-emptive action retired hurt. The problem was probably a lack of continuing broad range discussion by the
project leaders.

Barriers to innovation in summary
* Poor definition of the objective
* Limited understanding of time scales, skills and costs
* Discontinuity in leadership and objectives
* Poor engagements with the water companies and the actual operators
* Unrealistic market estimates
* Lack of clarity and timeliness in the regulation framework

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